One of my favorite characters in all of movies is played by Billy Crystal in City Slickers. I find his angst to be so ordinary, so utterly relatable. And perhaps my favorite scene is the one on his birthday in which he stares into the mirror and comes to grips (again) with the fact that he's never going to look any better than this...never going to be any better than this...and it ain't that great. Yes. Welcome to the deafening tick-tock world of adult birthdays.
I remember turning 10, and rejoicing in the accomplishment of double digits. Breasts and boys were still far enough around the corner that I could be pretty darn content to just be me...crooked kid teeth and awkward hair and all. There was still so much time for everything to improve. And so many more important things to think about. Like enjoying my popsicle.
I remember turning 20, and thinking that at last I was almost as old as I had always wanted to be. Who but an impatient teen could possibly wish to be older? But all I had ever wanted was to be taken seriously. And at 20, I felt that legitimacy was about to be within reach. At last.
I remember turning 30, and thinking I was OLD. Actually, that shadow began to threaten at about 25, when I first heard the ticking and realized that I would be 30 without becoming rich and famous if I didn't do something about it quick. And then suddenly I was 30, and I began to realize that, not only might I never be rich and famous, but perhaps I should re-evaluate that as a goal anyway and do something truly important. But of course I had no idea what that would be. And being confronted with the sudden uncertainty attending the weight of that question made me feel like perhaps I should have come to that realization much sooner, because now I was...old.
I remember turning 40, and being quite thrilled that I was NOT old. I could run further and faster than I ever had in my youth. My kids were grown, and I was still a young mom! I did get my first taste of REAL life problems - the kind with a capital "P"- around that age, but I survived. Little did I know that real life problems leave lasting changes, and that as we trudge forward we do not shed the ones we have encountered, we just add them to the luggage and carry them along as we attempt to jump the next hurdle. Bigger kids, bigger problems...as the old adage goes. But also aging joints, graying hair, mortal parents, money worries and the nagging notion that, although we are certainly not old yet, there may actually come a day when...well, I don't even want to go there.
And now 50. To celebrate, I've been spending the last month engaged in a major cancer scare. I think that a major cancer scare around age 50 has the potential to turn into a great gift...once you open the box and find that it's actually NOT cancer, that is. And I've just about got that wrapping paper off. What I hope is that I'll use the gift to help me move forward in better ways. That it will come with renewed energy, and enthusiasm, and perspective, and all the things one ought to have at the beginning of a new decade. Also an increased appreciation for the journey. And for things like birthdays themselves. Even the 50th one.
The thing about life is that we never know where we are on the continuum. Not the one of time, nor even the one of goodness. Who knows when we are old? We may have started on the downhill side at 18...or 25...or maybe not until 50. And it's probably best that we don't know when it happens, because it enables us to hope that our best years, our biggest accomplishments, may still lie ahead. Who knows if we are good? We may think we are, or fear we aren't, but since we really can't judge anyone else's standing from our own vantage point, who's to say? Probably best we don't know that either. Because it allows us to suspect that we should probably be better than we are. And to try to get there.
Regardless of how things turn out now, there's a good chance we'll all eventually end up with cancer, if granted the privilege of living long enough. Will that possibility be less earth-shattering at 80...or 85...than it has been at 49? I want to say yes, because I will have moved from "died too young" to "lived a full life." But the truth is probably not, given the fact that I feel like the same me now that I felt like in 8th grade. I'm getting old enough to realize that's probably not going to change.
I've been peering into my own darkness for a good many years now, and I'm still groping for a light switch or, better yet, hoping someone else is going to turn it on for me. It's looking increasingly less likely that there will be a sudden illumination in which everything will become clear, in which I will see not only the end from the beginning but the obvious path by which to reach it. And that's okay. Uncertain at 50 feels about right, I guess. Uncertain, but still the same me. And still expecting more.
Happy birthday, Me. Don't give up on yourself. Your teeth are still a little crooked, your hair is still pretty awkward most days, but those things haven't turned out to be terribly important. And even though you will never look better than this, probably never be better than this...this ain't that bad. And for heaven's sake, you're not OLD. (You should be so lucky!) In fact, here -- have a popsicle.
I saw a mother at church on Sunday wearing her Mother's Day gift. It was a bracelet. It was made of blue construction paper. It had red squiggles drawn on it, and a big fat crookedy piece of tape to hold it together. It was just about sixteen sizes too big for her wrist. In fact, she had to work pretty hard to keep it from sliding off over her hand every time she needed to use that arm to keep her two rambunctious boys under control on the pew. I was sitting behind her, and couldn't help but smile as I watched one of the boys reach over and stroke the bracelet. I am guessing he had something to do with its creation. And he seemed pretty happy to see it on display so proudly there. I didn't know that mother, but I wanted to lean forward and tell her that she was obviously a really good one. Sure, her boys were relatively out of control, noisy and distracting and longing to be anywhere but sitting on that bench, but it was easy to see she had the important things down cold. And they were reading her message loud and clear. Someday it will pay big dividends.
I did not receive a construction paper bracelet for Mother's Day. I did receive a new iPod to replace the one I smashed when it slipped out of my sweaty hand and landed face down on the road recently. Even though they don't make that iPod anymore, my daughter tracked one down, in the shade of green I like, and then loaded 500 of her favorite songs on there, which were hand picked to broaden my aging horizons, along with a nice selection of my own favorites - even the ones that she particularly hates. She completed the gift with a selection of non-breakable accessories to keep my new treasure safe no matter how sweaty or clumsy I get. It was an amazing bit of thoughtfulness -- a non-judgmental nod to my aversion to change, as well as a nudge into the future. The kind of thing a loving mother might do, come to think of it.
Another daughter spent the week prior to Mother's Day accompanying me to boring medical appointments. And discussing books with me. And sitting on the couch watching Sherlock and eating cake and ice cream. She finished off her gift with a hand-drawn card. In case you ever wondered, a hand-drawn card from a 26 year old may be even more charming than one from a six year old. It pictured a particular cactus we had seen at the botanical gardens earlier in the week that we thought looked as if it were offering us flowers. It made me happier than she could ever imagine.
The remaining daughter spent a chunk of time on a lovely phone chat with me. The kind we don't take time for very often. She told me all her news, big and small. We laughed a lot. She also sent a truly awful and amazing old video of Mr. T performing a song of some sort titled "Treat Your Mother Right" and wearing camo hot pants. You can imagine how good that was! Best of all, it came to my phone so I could watch it right when it arrived during church, and just when I was feeling bored and fidgety as those little boys.
Thank you, girls! I don't know what I possibly did to deserve such personal and affectionate displays, but I guess I did something right. It's hard to keep your eyes on the prize sometimes as a mother of young children. It can feel like a very long tunnel that you know you will eventually emerge from -- blinking in the light and probably feeling it's too soon. But it seems to go on forever while you're blindly groping your way through it. You hope you're doing the right things. The important ones. Of course, there isn't a map or a manual, so you never quite know. They just hand you your ticket in the hospital and away you go.
I suppose the best you can do is just be sure to wear the bracelet. Always wear the bracelet. No matter how much too big, or how much too blue, or how covered in gloppy tape. If it really doesn't match your dress, so much the better. Because someday you'll remember that bracelet very fondly and just wish you could have another. But most importantly, every day of their lives they will remember that you did.
Whew! Finally at the end of what has definitely been one of the most challenging weeks of my life. Medical Disneyworld! I got to ride all the rides! And I am still standing to tell the tale. Perhaps sometimes we underestimate our own strength. Perhaps that's why the universe takes it upon itself to put us up to a mirror now and then and make us take a long look right in the eyes. No blinking. Just a good solid week of "know thyself" training. And when it happens, it sucks. We can only hope that we come out better somehow for having had the experience. And in this case, I do hope that.
When God holds up a really harsh lens, somehow it allows us to see more clearly. It's like the bad things are able to magnify the good. Tender mercies become suddenly apparent. And they were all around this week. I received so many words of kindness and concern from friends far and near. Every word helped me feel just a bit stronger. And the crazy thing was, I received random words of kindness from people who didn't even know I was caught in the worst week of my life. But they somehow felt impressed to reach out anyway. It made such a difference. Those folks won't ever even know they were holding me up! But that's okay, because I know. And all I can assume is that, if there was any point at all to this little exercise, it was probably to make me more cognizant of the fact that I am not alone.
None of us is. Of course, with that knowledge comes the responsibility to be there as a support when it's someone else's turn to need. And that requires paying attention. To my life, and to yours too. Open my eyes, my mind, my heart, and then most importantly, my hands and mouth when I find a place they could help. And use them to just say thank you for the daily wonders I notice in my life merely by paying attention. Forever in debt.
The bottom line is, after all the scans and ultrasounds and x-rays and poking and prodding and blood-letting that have gone on this week, it seems I will live to see 50. And if I'm lucky, far beyond that (wait -- is there life beyond 50? Wow...I'm about to find out...ummm...soonish). Still a few unanswered medical questions, but I am mostly healthy. Good for me. Because I have also seen, in some important ways, I can be better. And that's useful information to carry into the second half.